Recently my listening therapist suggested it was time to do redo part of the Listening Therapy I undertook in April of 2019. Despite the dramatic improvements the Listening Therapy brought me, I need to remember there is still an injury that I need to monitor and deal with. There is a need for a periodic Listening Therapy tuneup.
Over the past several months, basically the better part of the summer I have found myself close to sensory overload. Too often I have had to give myself recovery time. Despite that my sensory loading is not getting cleared enough to give me the needed resilience to deal with my environment.
For me sensory loading comes mostly in the form of emotional experience of seeing hurt, loud or persistent noises, and cognitive demands that don’t give me enough time to reflect, process the information and make decisions for find resolutions.
Not all sensory loading is a result of negative experiences. When I see acts of kindness or when someone shares a celebrated emotional event I find I need recovery time.
Early this summer as I made my way into the city I came across a roadside scene of dozens of children’s shoes. The was shortly after the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops, BC residential school site. The scene of shoes would not leave me. As I thought about my four year old granddaughter the scene put me into sensory overload. Imagining someone at such a tender age being torn away from her family. Unimaginable fear, sorrow, heart ache and sense of abandonment. Reminders of that scene often brought tears to my eyes. This experience prompted my poem: I Weep.
In a gathering a few weeks ago someone shared their personal struggles. As part of the sharing she acknowledged a half dozen people who had reached out to her over the past number of years. She followed up with handing a personal note of thanks to each of her support people. The pain and care that was shared put me into sensory overload.
Most recently I hit a double setback within two hours. I was biking to an Indigenous Reconciliation event. Knowing that it would be emotionally taxing. I decided to bike to the event, partly out of convenience. The strenuous, rhythmic physical workout is a helpful sensory recovery method. Shortly before arriving at the event a truck approached me from behind. I was well aware of it’s presence. Then for some reason the driver blew the air horn when he was right beside me. This put me into a rather fragile sensory state. An hour later I attended the Indigenous Reconciliation event.
On the one hand, given my sensory state I should have foregone the event. But I couldn’t for two reasons. First of all I would have to deal with the emotional loading of walking away from an event that three generations of my family was attending. Secondly I would have to deal with the emotional loading of not supporting people who have suffered immensely. And so I joined in for most of the event. Near the end I had to pull myself away.
Going into sensory overload has effected much of my activities over the past few months. I have two favourite activities that helps me with recovery. I have a one acre garden, a place that is peaceful, a space that moves with the rhythm of nature and that gives me a good physical workout. Low on emotional loading. Low on cognitive loading. It’s a rhythmic routine of either hoeing, weed pulling or harvesting some vegetables.
My other recovery activity is cycling. An activity that has a narrow cognitive focus. A physical activity I find energizing and which counters the mental fatigue that is part of dealing with sensory overload. It puts me into an environment in which I get quality eye training. I move from looking what’s coming up in front of me to scanning my surroundings taking and cherishing the views.
Recently I was away from home for four days. In that time I biked over 200 km. With four days of not being on a schedule, taking on zero responsibilities and enjoying great weather while cruising down relatively quiet roads I felt better than I had for the past several months.
I need to figure out what my limits are for proper self-care. Following my Listening Therapy treatment which started in April of 2019 I was suddenly capable of taking on many more activities and having greater endurance for the activities I had been doing.
My increased activity level has also increased my potential exposure to environments that puts me at risk of sensory overload. As I look back over the past year I recall situations in which I did not have the energy to properly navigate some of the situations I found myself in.
In the natural world there a number of ways in which wildlife deal with danger. The two that tend to come to mind are fight or flight. What is often overlooked is a third choice, namely playing dead. We’ve all heard the term ‘playing possum’. There are a number of animals, because they lack speed and lack strength will ‘play possum’.
When a person encounters danger and are not able to simply walk away from it generally have a choice of Flight or Fight. They can either stand their ground or make a hasty retreat.
What we don’t often consider is how people choose the third option. The one example that comes to mind is a woman being assaulted. When a woman doesn’t have the option of fight or flight, her best option to minimize injury is to cooperate. Sadly, that creates the impression that is wasn’t an assault because it has the appearance of being a consensual encounter.
I have found myself in situations in which I was not treated with respect or that my request for accommodations related to my TBI and struggling with sensory overload, a recognized disability, was not granted. When I was given a clear signal that my request was unreasonable and that it impinged unfairly on others, I did not have the cognitive or emotional energy to mount a counter argument. I did not feel I was in a safe place where I would be heard. In the end it looked like I was in agreement with my request being denied.
For myself I would find a way to rationalize that I had not betrayed myself. I convinced myself that I would find a way to manage my sensory loading. From a self-care point of view that is counter productive. By continuing to allow this type of rationalization to continue I would gradually make my participation in my community unbearable.
I know I can not continue in this manner. I need to address the growing number of situations in which I have ‘played possum’ and overlooked the importance and need for greater self-care.
My first step is to redo the SS&P (Safe and Sound Protocol) part of the Listening Therapy. This is intended to help calm the vagal nerve. I need to bring my autonomic system into a social mode and away from ‘fight or flight’ or dorsal.
Dr. Stephen Porges has posited a Poly Vagal Theory. When we sense danger our vagal nerve is agitated. That puts us in a defensive mode. He has highlighted that our defense are not limited to ‘Fight or Flight’. Playing possum or the term he uses, going Dorsal is a human response as part of the autonomic system. I find the choice of the term ‘dorsal’ rather interesting. I suggests lying on one’s back, the most vulnerable position a person can be be in.
My second step it to acknowledge the number of situations I have been in where I subconsciously reverted to the dorsal response. I need to reverse the rationalization that I have given to each of those situations and call it for what it is. Namely, I was not being respected and my needs were pushed aside.
My second step will be challenging for a number of reasons. First, because my cognitive functioning is slower due to the TBI the situations happens before I realize the nature of what just happened. Secondly, the Dorsal response is not a thought out choice. The response flows out of the autonomic system which is the body responding in a reactive way.
This leads me to reflect on situations sometimes several days after they happened and realize what went wrong. That usually doesn’t leave any options for taking corrective action. The opportunity is past. At best I can learn from the situation and hopefully recognize a similar situation while it is happening. A tall order.
I have arrived at some general conclusions. The negative events that lead to sensory overload usually involve dealing with people who are self absorbed or inconsiderate. It’s often people who are unable or unwilling to see another person’s point of view. I think there is often a blindness to what effect their words or actions have on other people.
I wonder how other people deal with challenges related to their disability. Do you have experiences that have worked well? Have you own experiences given you helpful insight?
Jasper Hoogendam (c) October 2021